The A-Z Bookish Survey

Here’s a fun little survey of sorts that I discovered by way of Lauren Roland, the blogger behind Books are Only the Beginning, whose post you can read here. And you should read it: it’s fun, and I don’t think any of our answers overlap, so Lauren’s will be a different (and far less verbose) experience than mine.

Anyhow, that’s enough preamble. Onto the survey (which, for some reason, lacks prompts for the letters U and X. C’mon, mysterious originator of the meme…)!

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Author You’ve Read the Most Books From

A while back, I wrote up a list of my Top 5 most-read authors, so if you want the full details, you can go check that out. The late Ursula K. Le Guin remains in the top slot, with nine books. I’m hoping to start soon on The Complete Orsinia (ed. Brian Attebery, Library of America, 2017), a collection of lesser-known stories and songs set in a fictional Central European country, so she may perhaps hit double-digits in the near future.

I try to enforce a degree of variety into my reading habits, so I have a rule about returning to favorite authors: after finishing a book by Author X, I must read 15 books by other writers before reading another of Author X’s works. I think that helps prevent particular writers’ styles from getting stale for me. Maybe the whirlwind digressions in Larry Levis’s poetry, for instance, would get tiresome if I binged through his bibliography one collection after another. Since I space these readings out over months if not years, each revisit feels refreshing.

Best Sequel Ever

I’ll be returning to this below, but I’m not one for book series. For one thing, most of my readings in the past few years have been in contemporary poetry collections, so the notion of a book series may as well be a foreign concept to me. For another, I find that my patience for serialized storytelling is quite thin. I’ll take the small, self-contained story of one-and-done most any day.

Still, I have in fact read sequels. And in terms of improvement over the previous volumes, a good marker of a sequel’s quality, it’s hard to think of a better example than Richard III. The final installment of Shakespeare’s minor tetralogy, the play comes on the heels of the trio of Henry VI plays, and the jump in quality is vast. The Henry VI plays are among Shakespeare’s first, and boy, does it show. The plotting is aimless, the verse stiff, and the characters forgettable. As I write this I literally can’t remember a single event from 3 Henry VI, beyond what I know happened historically. That’s a horrible sign.

But then the cycle comes alive in its fourth and final production. Richard III may not be peak Shakespeare (it’s way too long, and Shakespeare hasn’t figured out the right way to use ghosts yet), but the title character is a solid variant on the Marlovian over-reacher, a scheming and rhetorically dextrous villain who completely owns the stage every second of the play. A forum poster once likened watching such a character to watching a Godzilla movie, because who doesn’t want to witness all the destruction they’re going to bring? I like that reading. A lot.

Currently Reading

I’m working my way through three books at the moment:

  • 1000 Years of Irish Poetry: The Gaelic and Anglo-Irish Poets from Pagan Times to the Present, ed. Kathleen Hoagland (Devin-Adair, 1947)
  • Agee on Film, Vol. 1: Reviews and Comments by James Agee (Beacon, 1958)
  • The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017)

I always have multiple books on my currently-reading shelf, just in case one of them starts to drag. Generally I try to pull from a variety of forms: a poetry collection, a work of fiction, a non-fiction book, etc. Given that poetry collections are often under 100 pages, I end up cycling books out of the poetry slot much quicker than I do for the prose slots.

Although, given the sheer length of 1000 Years of Irish Poetry, and my insistence on reading all poetry aloud, that one’s going to be on my currently-reading shelf for some time. Someone in my dad’s girlfriend’s family, who are all Irish, found the book at a yard sale and remembered that I liked poetry, so that was a thoughtful gift. I will say, reading the intro was a trip. The anthology is so old that 1) William Butler Yeats had only recently died, and 2) James Joyce was still considered a controversial writer in some academic circles.

The other two books I’ve obliquely mentioned on this blog before, so I won’t prattle on about them here. I quoted some of James Agee’s columns in The Nation for my discussion of voice-over in book-to-film adaptations, and I mentioned seeing Alice McDermott discuss The Ninth Hour at the National Book Festival in my write-up of the event.

Drink of Choice While Reading

I imagine the originator of this survey had something cozy and comforting in mind, some semi-obscure flavor of tea, say. Or if you would rather adopt a hipster level of self-conscious performance: absinthe. For me, though, a bottle of Coke will do just fine. It’s what I drink on most occasions regardless, over the well-founded advice of the dentist and my body’s sleep system.

E-reader or Physical Book

I remember this being a much more contentious discussion several years ago, when e-readers were first bursting onto the market. I really don’t have a preference between the two when it comes to works of prose. The portability and lower cost of e-books is about worth the subjective experience of holding a physical work in my hands, so the format matters very little.

Poetry is another discussion altogether: hard copy all the way. Back in 2011, I made the mistake of purchasing The Complete Works of W. B. Yeats as an e-book from Amazon, and the formatting was abysmal. Infuriating. A foul rag-and-bone shop. It was so difficult, if not at times impossible, to tell when a line broke because Yeats intended for a hard enjambment, and when it broke because the e-reader’s dimensions were too narrow to fit the line as written. Perhaps things have gotten better for poetry e-books since 2011, but I’d rather not get burned again. Give me the fixed arrangement of the page, thank you very much.

Fictional Character You Probably Would Have Actually Dated in High School

Me, dating in high school? Good one.

Glad You Gave This Book a Chance

This is a tough one for me to answer, because I take “giving a book a chance” to mean that I had negative expectations going in. Most books I read, especially poetry collections, I have no expectations when I start. I often just pull volumes semi-randomly from library shelves, just to overcome the weight of possibility overload. And when that’s not the case, I’m reading something that a friend or a critic has recommended, so there’s not much initial skepticism involved.

Looking over my “read” shelf on Goodreads (who needs a memory when we have social cataloging?), perhaps this one fits the spirit best: The War Is Over: Selected Poems by Evgeny Vinokurov (trans. Anthony Rudolf and Daniel Weissbort, International Writing Program, 1976). I found this volume secondhand, in a very coffee-stained quality, and had it not had the backing of the University of Iowa behind it, I’d have passed it over completely. (In fact, as of now I’m literally the only one on Goodreads to have rated the book.) It’s not a great volume, but I do admire Vinokurov’s poem “The Swans,” in which the speaker imagines birds emerging from his homework. “No one would ever guess they’d flown,” the final lines tell us, “From the pages of a mathematics textbook.” That sounds about true.

Hidden Gem Book

Again, a surprisingly difficult one to get a handle on. I suppose that, despite the reported growth in its readers of late, any contemporary poet not named Rupi Kaur would fit the bill. But most of my favorites, such as Brenda Shaughnessy and Andrew Hudgins, are somewhat sizeable names within the poetry community, so to call them “hidden gems” seems disingenuous.

If I have to stick my neck out on one hidden gem book, I’ll go with Labor by Jill Magi (Nightboat, 2014), a collection that blurs the lines between poetry, fiction, and archival employee handbook. It hooked me in a way that few works of that nature do, in part because its politics are simultaneously heartfelt and direct. I mean, the book is called Labor, after all. At the moment, it only has ten ratings on Goodreads, so I think that counts as obscure enough for present purposes.

Important Moment in Your Reading Life

After ninth-grade English, I’d convinced myself that I hated Shakespeare. We read Julius Caesar about halfway through the year, and the experience was beyond frustrating. Not because I couldn’t understand the text, but because I couldn’t see how anyone could enjoy the text. As it was taught, Julius Caesar was a series of literary devices stitched together: some anaphora there, a hamartia there, a few puns sprinkled in for flavor. Completely lost in all that: the intense personal and political drama of the story, and the aesthetic beauty of the language. You know, the parts that make Shakespeare transcendent instead of testable.

In tenth-grade, for reasons I can’t quite recall, I decided to give the Bard another go, and I picked up Hamlet. It was dense, certainly, but I powered through it, reading the text aloud just to get lost in the music of verse. (If you’re wondering where that insistence on reading poetry aloud that I mentioned above comes from, it’s here.) The tense atmosphere and Hamlet’s constant waffling drew me in, and the soliloquies were as gripping as I’d been promised. I don’t think a single work has changed my mind about an author so quickly as that first read-through of Hamlet did with the Bard.

Not long after I finished Act III or so, I had my wisdom teeth removed, and couldn’t speak clearly for about a week afterward. There were many problems with being in that state, of course, but the worst at the time? Having to postpone the play.

Seriously. If you haven’t read Hamlet, go read Hamlet. I made it unofficial homework in my sports literature class, for God’s sake.

Just Finished

The last book I polished off was Ms. Marvel Volume 3: Crushed (written primarily by G. Willow Wilson, Marvel, 2015). I liked it quite a bit, even if the trade’s last issue (S.H.I.E.L.D. #2) was a bit on the grossly absurd side: it involves monsters made of regurgitated pizza dough.

Ms. Marvel is a rarity for me: a comic book I’ve read outside of an academic context. I’m fairly certain that for more people, the exception and the rule would be reversed, but that’s me for you. My first semester of undergrad, my mandatory expository writing class was themed around whether comic books counted as art (answer: yes), so I’ve read an odd smattering of titles: some World War II propaganda, the last issue of Grant Morrison’s run on Animal Man, Art Spiegelman’s Maus, etc. And in another class, we were assigned a graphic novel adaptation of (no joke) the 9/11 Commission Report. But Ms. Marvel is the first comic series that I’ve read for fun. Knowing me I’ll never catch up, but that’s fine by me.

Kinds of Books You Won’t Read

Empirically, there are plenty of kinds of books that I don’t read. I haven’t read any romance novels, for example, or James Patterson-style thrillers. But I’m reluctant to categorically rule out a genre, both as a check on potential prejudices and as an admission that one’s tastes and identifications change over time.

That said: I’d probably rule out a book described as “New Age” or “spiritual.” At least at the moment, they about sound the opposite of my personality.

Longest Book You’ve Read

Having just said that: according to Goodreads, the longest book that I’ve read is the King James Bible, which comes in at around 1600 pages. I’m an atheist, but more importantly I love literature, and the Bible’s influence on Anglophone literature and the English language is, of course, enormous. Back in 2014 I made it a project to finish the KJV by the end of the year, which is manageable if you go 3-4 chapters per day.

I’d say the experience was worth it, although I’m not sure I’d recommend going to the Bible for an aesthetically complete experience. Books like Leviticus and Chronicles are famously dull, of course, but I’m also no fan of the Pauline epistles, which are also far too doctrine-heavy for my speed. But at the same, I still go back and read the parables, which remain masterworks of condensed, nuanced storytelling. How about a combined collection of Jesus’s parables and Aesop’s fables? That’d be subversively lovely.

Major Book Hangover Because of…

So, I had to look up what the phrase “book hangover” meant, and I can’t say I’ve experienced one. Perhaps I just have very fast book metabolism.

Number of Bookcases You Own

Me, owning furniture? Really, you ought to try stand-up.

One Book You Have Read Multiple Times

The last book that I reread was Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith (Graywolf, 2011). It’s just a solid collection, and it demonstrates Smith’s comfort with both free verse and received forms. “Solstice,” for example, is a perfectly natural villanelle about reading the morning news. Actually, this book almost counts, in a spiritual sense, as a “Best Sequel.” My last semester of undergrad, we read two of Smith’s collections. First was Duende (Graywolf, 2007), which left me completely cold. Second was Life on Mars, which I fell in love with. Writing poems about David Bowie will make that happen, I suppose.

Preferred Place to Read

I can’t be there with any regularity, obviously, but I’ve realized my most productive reading comes on long distance trains, which is to say, Amtrak. I’m pretty sure I knocked out the entirety of Silas Marner that way. Not much else to say about that, so I’ll just note that the Amtrak magazine, The National, is actually quite entertaining. They even get major poets like Yusef Komunyakaa to contribute pieces to it.

Quote that Inspires You/Gives You All the Feels from a Book You’ve Read

I first came across Philip Larkin’s “Aubade” in his Collected Poems (ed. Anthony Thwaite, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004), and the poem has haunted me since. In Larkin’s last masterpiece, he takes the poetic tradition of lovers parting at dawn and twists into a reflection on encroaching mortality. I once showed it to my students as an example of elegiac poetry, and the third stanza in particular caught everyone’s attention. I shall now quote that stanza in full:

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear—no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

That last line hits me about as hard as Hamlet’s “The undiscover’d country from whose bourn / No traveller returns.”

Reading Regret

I desperately wish I had read more contemporary poetry—hell, even just post-WWII poetry—before I fancied that I could write any. I wish it hadn’t taken me until junior year of undergrad for Larry Levis to open my eyes to how poetry could be written. Not even how it should be written, just the possibility. Because where I came from at least, you’d think poetry ended with Robert Frost.

Series You Started and Need to Finish (All Books are Out in Series)

As mentioned above, I don’t generally go in for book series. But as with many things, Le Guin is someone I make exceptions for. Curiously, while I’ve read the entirety of her mid-2000s Annals of the Western Shore series, I’ve only read the first two books in her most famous world: Earthsea.

In my experience, at least, libraries are weird when it comes to the Earthsea books. Every one I’ve been to seems to have the later books in the series, but none of the original trilogy. You’d think it’d be the other way around. Hell, the reason I read Annals of the Western Shore in the first place was that my local library actually had all the books. Availability is  a limiting factor on what one can read, after all.

At a certain point, I’ll have to just buy The Farthest Shore and be done with it. I doubt it’ll fall into my lap, the way a cheapo paperback of The Tombs of Atuan did the one time I went to Caliban back in Pittsburgh.

Three of Your All-Time Favorite Books

This post is already short-story length, so I’m just going to list three without comment:

  • Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala by Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer (Harvard University Press, 1982)
  • M-80 by Jim Daniels (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1993)
  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey (Viking, 1962)

Very Excited for This Release More than All the Others

Honestly, I don’t really look forward to releases. I’ll get to a book when I get to it.

Worst Bookish Habit

I am really bad about taking notes when reading, whether that means underlining passages, scribbling out marginalia, even just making note of page numbers. That’s come back to haunt when, say, writing posts for this blog. “Wait, when did Agee complain about voice-over again? Which one of these scores of columns was that? Was he talking about literary adaptations or war propaganda? Or was it both? Why didn’t you mark it down, past me?”

Your Latest Book Purchase

The last time I was back in the New Jersey hinterlands, after losing to my younger brother in a bowling series for the first time ever, I consoled myself by finally picking up a copy of John Hersey’s Hiroshima (Knopf, 1946). I’d been meaning to read this book ever since my first semester of undergrad. Remember that class where I had to read the 9/11 Commission Report rendered as a comic book? Well, we also covered By the Bomb’s Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age by Paul Boyer (University of North Carolina Press, 1985), which had a significant section on Hersey’s book. It’s less something I expect to be good, and more something I expect to be historically interesting.

Zzz-Snatcher Book (Last Book That Kept You Up Late)

Me, sleeping at a reasonable hour? You must understand the rule of three.

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So there you have it! Hopefully some of that was interesting to you. Certainly much more interesting for me than the Great Alphabet Poem Fiasco. But that’s a story for another time. I’m practically at 3200 words here.

If you liked this, you may also like this similarly reflective, similarly scattershot post: Four Fragments on Nothing.

Voice-Over Narration in Book-to-Film Adaptations

As a companion to PBS’s ongoing The Great American Read project, video essayist Lindsay Ellis will be presenting a series of short videos on literary topics for PBS Digital Studios. The first such piece, released on June 4, covers the evergreen topic of book-to-film adaptations:

If Ellis’s video has a central thesis, it’s that “adaptation isn’t just about changing a story. It is translating the story to a totally different language: the language of film.” Literary language and film language have different sets of advantages and disadvantages that make translating a narrative from the one language to the other difficult. For instance, a film can rely on an actor’s delivery to elevate the dialogue, while a book can set its story wherever it wants to without regard to cost.

One of the most difficult aspects of literary language to translate to film, according to Ellis, is interior monologue. In fact, I’d say interior monologue is an aspect of text that doesn’t translate to film at all, at least not directly. It may perhaps be rendered as dialogue, or better yet, its tone and meaning may be implied through the actor’s performance, the cinematography, the editing, etc. But whenever the interior monologue is simply recited through voice-over narration, I start groaning, and think less of the film for effectively cheating.

The Picture of Dorian Gray filmAn aversion to such narration has been a feature of film criticism for some time now. James Agee, for example, shares his frustrations with the use of voice-over narration in book-to-film treatments in his March 10, 1945 column for The Nation, wherein he reviews an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (dir. Albert Lewin, 1945). Now, voice-over narration drove Agee up the wall regardless of context—see his writings on World War II propaganda films for more examples of that—but his remarks on Lewin’s film feel like the culmination of his bile towards this thoroughly uncinematic technique:

I wish somebody would take book lovers like Mr. Lewin aside and explain to them, once for all, that to read from the text of a novel—not to mention interior monologues—when people are performing on the screen, while it may elevate the literary tone of the production, which I doubt, certainly and inescapably plays hell with it as a movie…I can understand least of all why Mr. Lewin and his associates passed up the best movie chance of all: to let the portrait change before your eyes, rather than bringing it on, changed, at set intervals.

In Agee’s view, films like Lewin’s err in using film as a medium for delivering a novel’s text, when they should be using the text as inspiration for playing with and advancing the emerging art of cinema. Case in point: perhaps rendering the portrait’s transformation in a convincing fashion would have been difficult given the film techniques available in 1945, but that is the very challenge a filmmaker should embrace when adapting such a story.

(A brief aside: Agee also identified the slavish recital of a novel’s words with the moralist’s preference for movies that are good-for-you rather than good. In a later column—September 14, 1946—he imagined that such people would love nothing more than “a good faithful adaptation of Adam Beade in sepia, with the entire text read offscreen by Herbert Marshall.” This is, of course, of no relevance to the discussion currently at hand; I just find that quote amusing.)

My Sister's Keeper filmOn a personal level, I can think of no more infuriating an example of a film abusing voice-over narration than My Sister’s Keeper (dir. Nick Cassavetes, 2009), based on Jodi Picoult’s novel of the same name. Cassavetes’s film not only inserts narration where it is not welcome, getting in the way of the actors’ attempts to convey the family’s many crises, but also early on attempts to simulate the novel’s use of multiple perspectives by just throwing establishing text with a character’s name onto the screen, before abruptly giving up on the idea about a third of the way through. Blessedly, when I saw the film in theaters, the sound at our screening was inaudible for the first few minutes, so I at least was spared the verbatim recitation of the novel’s prologue. (My poor grandmother thought she had finally gone deaf.)

Near the end of the video, Ellis notes that when reading a book, “your brain is essentially acting as director, casting agent, cinematographer.” This fact, as Ellis says, explains why any adaptation tends to prove disappointing—the filmmaker’s vision almost certainly differs a great deal from yours—but I think it also explains why the use of voice-over narration bothers me so. Just as readers exercise a large amount of control over their mental image of a novel’s events, filmmakers adapting novels for the screen have a large amount of control over their final products. To include voice-over narration of a book’s internal monologue is an artistic choice, sure. But I think it also represents a relinquishing of power back to the original author, an admission of defeat and a throwing up of hands. It’s the distressingly safe move.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest filmGranted, I’m also the sort of person who doesn’t place much value on an adaptation’s strict fidelity to the source material. For example, Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is one of my all-time favorite reads, and Chief Bromden’s scattered yet illuminating narration is at the heart of my enjoyment of it. The film version (dir. Miloš Forman, 1975), as it happens, is one of my all-time favorite watches, and it not only ditches Chief Bromden’s narration, but also greatly reduces his role in the story; he goes from the co-protagonist to at most a side character. Yet because of the film’s strong performances, cinematography, décor, and score, I don’t mind that change, or any of the other myriad alterations, one bit.

What do you all think? Do recitations of internal monologues enrage you or enliven you? Are there examples of films that use their source materials’ internal monologues in interesting or productive ways? Let me know in the comments.

My Last Charles Village Festival

I shall be leaving Baltimore very shortly, and I can’t say that I’m especially nostalgic about that. I came here as a Johns Hopkins graduate student, so the university has been my community far more than the city has been. And even if that weren’t the case, I am at heart a homebody; getting out into the world, it just isn’t me.

In fact, I only know about this bit of local flavor because I happen to live literally across the street from it.

The Charles Village Festival is a two-day fair of sorts in Baltimore’s Wyman Park Dell, held on the first weekend of June every year. You’ll find more or less what you expect there: arts and crafts vendors, food stands, kids’ activities, a 5K race, and so forth. But for me, the big draw has always been the live music.

Although, my first summer in Baltimore, “the big draw” was more like “the big gripe.” See, the tunes at the festival get so loud that if I recognize a song, I can sing along to it from my fourth floor apartment. That’s admittedly nice every once in a while (who doesn’t want to shout the chorus to Weezer’s “Say It Ain’t So”?), but I like peace and quiet, and after awhile even the crowd-pleasers wear out their welcome when heard through closed windows.

Of course, the festival wasn’t going anywhere, so eventually that weekend I set aside my annoyance and waltzed on down to the dell. And I had myself a good time, even though as a temporary resident of Charles Village I felt like an interloper. It was kind of crowded by then; I remember having to peer through some overlapping tree branches to see the main stage. But the tunes were lively throughout. I especially enjoyed hearing the U.S. Navy’s bluegrass band, which for the record exists. Their version of the country standard “Big Spike Hammer” ended up inspiring a poem for one of my MFA courses, so if nothing else, the festival gave me that.

And last year’s festival served as my indoctrination into the cult of Steely Dan, when local tribute act Technicolor Motor Home (taken from a line in “Kid Charlemagne”) closed out the proceedings. It was a weird experience, hearing a tribute band for a group I knew basically knew nothing about. Going in, I knew Steely Dan for “Do It Again,” and I’d probably heard “Reelin’ in the Years” without registering it, but beyond that, nothing. But the locals’ musicianship on the main stage enraptured me, and I’ve slowly been delving deeper into the Dan ever since.

(That recording is from several years prior, but “My Old School” was probably my favorite performance from last year’s set.)

But I think the musical highlight of festival tends to be the kids from The Music Workshop, a private music school in Baltimore. In various configurations, they play covers of popular rock songs between the main stage acts. (That cover of “Say It Ain’t So” I mentioned above? That’d be them.) It’s not they are the best at what they do, but they’re charmingly unpolished—like pint-sized Crazy Horses—and seeing kids bring some energy to yet another rendition of “I Won’t Back Down” or “Blitzkrieg Bop” always warms my heart. And gets my foot tapping.

The Pseudonyms
They’re called The Pseudonyms, and their front woman has some good stage banter.

Rain is threatening to hang over the entire weekend, so I don’t know how much more of the festival I’ll be able to see. (I sure hope it holds out late tomorrow: Technicolor Motor Home is supposed to wrap things up again.) Just in case that’s the last of it: I’m gonna miss you, Charles Village Festival.

No matter how loud you get on a Saturday morning.

Walt Whitman’s “A Noiseless Patient Spider”: An Analysis

Walt WhitmanI’ve indirectly talked about Walt Whitman on this blog before, when I applied his introduction to the original, 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass to the 1938 film If I Were King. But I’ve never discussed any of his actual poetry. Much like John Dryden, the last poet whose work I analyzed, most of Whitman’s best-known poems are both long and dense. Think “Song of Myself” or “I Sing the Body Electric.” As such, he doesn’t lend himself to the casual blog treatment.

Still, I think it’s time I give this central figure in American verse his due. As such, let’s take a quick dive into one of his shorter gems, “A Noiseless Patient Spider.” The text is as follows:

A Noiseless Patient Spider

A noiseless patient spider,
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

“A Noiseless Patient Spider” provides us with a perfect example of what’s called an emblem structure. A poem using an emblem structure builds an argument in two parts. In the first part, the speaker describes an object in some detail; in the second part, they reflect on the meaning, the significance, of that object. What starts out like a still life soon becomes a metaphor.

Now, unlike the octave-sestet structure of a Petrarchan sonnet, say, there’s no rule dictating where the shift in an emblematic poem will occur. However, in the case of Whitman’s poem, the two parts of the argument are very easy to spot. The first stanza gives us the description of the object (a spider spinning its web), and the second stanza gives us the speaker’s reflection on the object (how his soul is like the spider). The first lines of each stanza even act as signposts, introducing the subject of each stanza so the reader can track the speaker’s thought progression.

So how is the soul like the spider? Let’s look at how Whitman presents the spider. Before the creature even appears in the body of the poem, we learn that our subject is both “noiseless” and “patient,” which is a calming pair of adjectives, and though accurate, perhaps not the first things we think of when we hear “spider.” In the second line, the speaker gives us the spider’s situation: “on a little promontory it stood isolated.” There’s our starting premise: a spider, all alone, sitting calmly on the ledge.

From here, though, things start moving. Line 3 presents us with a syntactical ambiguity. “Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding” is parallel to the previous line, so we instinctively make the speaker the agent of everything in the phrase. In this case, that would mean the speaker is considering “how to explore the vacant vast surrounding.” But the subsequent line clarifies the agent here is the spider, not the speaker. The spider “launch’d forth filament” with goal of confronting the emptiness before it.

Whitman has put the still life into literal motion, and if line 5 is any indication, it’s a perpetual motion at that: “[e]ver unreeling…ever tirelessly speeding.” It’s also a motion the spider itself generates, for it launches the filament “out of itself.” Here we have all the material needed for a metaphor. All Whitman needs to do is to make the target of that metaphor explicit.

Indeed, the parallels between the first stanza spider and the second stanza soul are extensive. The “measureless oceans of space” that the speaker’s soul is “[s]urrounded, detached” within recall the “vacant vast surrounding” that the spider faced, as does “ceaselessly” bring us back to “tirelessly”: neither being’s efforts will end anytime soon. And of course, the soul’s actions are those of the spider as well. Just as the spider spews out its silk, the soul is always “musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them.” The soul’s efforts are even likened to the spider’s material: it shoots out a “ductile anchor,” a “gossamer thread.” Just what the soul is seeking to achieve may be nebulous—and what great metaphysical mystery isn’t?—but we at least have a sense of what the soul’s actions are like. And that’s probably more than we could say going in.

Something else I’d highlight is how Whitman’s musicality perfectly reflects the actions of both the spider and the soul. Now, Whitman is of course famous as a pioneer in free verse, but free verse doesn’t reject meter, merely the rigidity of fixed forms. It embraces the flexibility of everyday speech while still elevating it to the level of verse.

Specifically, the first stanzas’s use of falling rhythms, of trochees (a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable) and dactyls (a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables), embodies how the spider must reach out into the unknown emptiness before it. The repetition of “filament,” of the spider’s instrument of exploration, is the most overt instance of this: “filament, | filament, | filament, | out of it | self.” But it continues into the subsequent line: “Ever un | reeling them, | ever | tire | lessly | speeding them.” The switch to trochees is a nice touch here, tightening the rhythm right at that most determined phrase: “ever tirelessly.”

As an exercise, you might go through the second stanza of the poem, and see if Whitman uses the same musical underscoring for the soul as he does for the spider. If so, then we have a consistent “pattern” (however unpatterned it actually is) for soundplay in the poem. If it’s different, what does that change tell us about how Whitman sees the soul in comparison to the spider?

What are your thoughts on “A Noiseless Patient Spider”? Feel free to share your opinions and analyses, or to suggest more classic poems to give this sort of treatment to, in the comments.

The Power of Constraints: “In the Body of the Sturgeon” by Mary Reid Kelley and Patrick Kelley

Recently while at the Baltimore Museum of Art, I saw a new film by the artistic duo of Mary Reid Kelley and Patrick Kelley, called In the Body of the Sturgeon. Set on a doomed submarine stationed in the Pacific on the day President Harry S Truman announces the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, In the Body of the Sturgeon is by turns solemn and bizarre. Truman’s grave message and the ghosts of the sunken sailor share screen time with ecstatic odes to urination and pratfalls about drinking torpedo fuel. And yet it all fits together, thanks in no small part to the Kelleys’ visual aesthetic, which renders their human forms as disturbing, monochrome muppets.

But rather than talk about the filmmaking, I’d like to talk about the script. What drew my attention to the Kelleys’ film was not the lightbox pictures which served as previews, but rather the placard’s account of the writing process. The text of In the Body of the Sturgeon is draw entirely from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1855 poem The Song of Hiawatha. Every word in the script is either a word or a phrase repurposed from Longfellow’s work, and on top of that, the script maintains the original poem’s (in)famous use of trochaic tetrameter (i.e., eight syllables, alternating between stressed and unstressed syllables: By the | shores of | Gitche | Gumee).

Now, I don’t think I’d go so far as the placard does and call those rules “absurdly strict parameters.” The Song of Hiawatha is an epic poem, and as such it presents the found poet with an extensive lexicon to play with. And while trochaic tetrameter is an unnatural rhythm for English poetry, writing a poem in the same meter as the source material may be easier than expected. After all, Longfellow did a lot of the grunt work, finding words that fit the meter. Mining a good poem out of The Song of Hiawatha may still be a challenge, but it’s not an inconceivable one.

No, the real “absurdly strict parameter” is the using Longfellow’s poem to write about this particular subject: a submarine crew during World War II. A lot of the vocabulary that one would think vital to such a story (“torpedo,” “bomb,” “submarine,” even “sailor”) is not present in the source material, and so cannot be used while still keeping with the form. That ninety-year gap between the Kelleys’ subject and their lexicon makes the whole script into a game of Taboo. So how do they work around those forbidden words?

Most obviously, the Kelleys have the advantage of working in film. Even if they do not permit themselves to say “tank of torpedo fuel,” for example, they can still depict the tank of torpedo fuel on-screen as itself. They just use a somewhat-related, metaphorical name in that phrase’s place, in this case, “kettle.” But that’s not quite satisfying to me as a writer; I want to see something beyond a one-to-one substitution.

Perhaps the Kelleys can simply write around the restricted vocabulary. Consider the following excerpt from Part I of the film:

Now he stirred that sluggish water,
And the food had been transfigured,
Changed into a weak, old whiteness,
Bitter so that none could drink it.

Take a moment, if you need to, to figure out what they’re describing in this excerpt.

If you guessed “powdered milk,” you’d be correct. That second line, “And the food had been transfigured,” is perhaps the most direct clue that the speaker is discussing instant food of some sort, and “that sluggish water” and “weak, old whiteness” would point towards milk in particular (“milk” being another word not found in The Song of Hiawatha). This is of course a long-winded means of describing a simple action, but that only enhances the grand sweep the Kelleys are going for here.

Yet my favorite moment of the Kelleys’ indirect description is perhaps the plainest. It comes during Truman’s speech following the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Truman notes that many countries had “Chased the fearful, great achievement,” i.e., the production of nuclear weapons. That’s a wonderfully euphemistic way of framing an arms race: maybe acknowledging the dangers and the vices involved (“fearful”), but at the same time affirming the value and goodness of the mission (“great achievement”). Indeed, he later lists of the qualities of this “fearful, great achievement,” as though it were the hero in an Old English epic: “Smooth and polished, keen and costly.”

It’s no secret that I think constraints, especially self-imposed ones, are a boon for creativity. The past two semesters I’ve sent students a video series on the philosophy of creativity just to drive that point home. But what In the Body of the Sturgeon shows is that working within such constraints doesn’t require the flashiest metaphors, or the most virtuosic command of meter. Sometimes, restraints compel us toward understatement, toward plain language. And there is plenty of poetry to find therein.

If you’d like to see In the Body of the Sturgeon for yourself, you can do so at the Baltimore Museum of Art through August 19, 2018, alongside another of the Kelleys’ works, This Is Offal, as part of their exhibition We Are Ghosts. More information about the exhibition is available here.

Recent Publication: Valparaiso Poetry Review

VPR

Here’s some exciting news: one of my poems is now available in the most recent issue of Valparaiso Poetry Review! It’s called “Indiscriminate Archive,” and here’s a bit of trivia for you: this was the very last poem that I wrote while I was an MFA candidate at Johns Hopkins.

You can read “Indiscriminate Archive” here. Special thanks to VPR’s editor, Edward Byrne, for selecting my work. While you’re there, be sure to read the other fabulous poets featured in the issue, including work from Jeff Ewing, Elizabeth Knapp, and John Sibley Williams.